First, the white St. Paul residents tried to talk William T. Francis out of moving to their neighborhood. When he refused to comply, the whites sent threatening postcards — to Francis at his office and to his wife, Nellie, at home.
Even when the threats started by telephone, the black couple wouldn’t change their minds. So then came the mob, 200 white neighbors protesting, picketing, setting off flares. Then they set a cross ablaze on the front lawn of the Francis home. And another.
“I am of the opinion that they do not intend to quit until some act of violence has been committed,” Francis wrote in a Dec. 13, 1924, letter to the NAACP, pleading for help.
At a time when the NAACP was investigating lynchings throughout the South, the bigotry and intimidation encountered by the couple took place in what is now the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul.
This ugly chapter in Minnesota history is dramatized in “Not in Our Neighborhood!” which opens Feb. 14 at the Landmark Center in St. Paul.
Written by St. Paul Central High School graduates Tom Fabel and Eric Wood, it’s the story of what happened when the couple moved from their longtime home in the Rondo neighborhood to a new house on Sargent Avenue in the rising middle-class enclave of Groveland Park.
Wood, who also directs, and Fabel, who plays the mayor of St. Paul, said they hope the audience is as stunned and moved by this largely overlooked episode of hate and fear as they were.
“It was a kick in the stomach,” said Fabel, a retired attorney who grew up in the area. “No one I know had ever heard of it. Immediately, I thought, ‘there’s a play in this.’ ”
He enlisted the writing help of Wood, who also had never heard the story. Putting it under the spotlight now, Wood said, helps people better understand the continuing patterns of housing discrimination and segregation today.
“We can’t move forward if we don’t understand our history and we don’t have a point of reference,” he said. “As a black person, I think it’s important for us to understand the legacy. That’s the key for me. Black and white.”
The incident predates by seven years a white mob’s harassment of a black family in south Minneapolis. That 1931 incident is memorialized by a historical marker that was placed in 2011 at the former Lee house.
Fabel, a board member of the Ramsey County Historical Society, first read about the Francis family in an article in the Winter 2017 issue of Ramsey County History.
Francis was an Indiana native who rose from railroad company messenger to chief clerk of its legal department. He earned his law degree and would move into private practice and become a leader in national Republican politics.
The former Nellie Griswold was born in 1874 in Nashville, moved north and graduated from St. Paul Central High School in the 1890s. She became a suffragette and civic activist who helped forge Minnesota’s anti-lynching law after the 1920 lynching of three black circus workers in Duluth. She would go on to serve as president of the Minnesota State Federation of Colored Women.
The Francises’ trouble began just before they moved to a newly built house on Sargent Avenue in 1924. The neighborhood “improvement” association first urged them to change their minds. Then the group launched a fund drive to buy the house.
Oscar Arneson, the group’s leader, was a Norwegian-born journalist who owned a printing business and had served as chief clerk of the Minnesota House. He insisted he had nothing personal against the Francises, Francis wrote to the NAACP, “but if I came into the neighborhood it would result in other colored people buying there” and greatly reduce property values.
After the cross-burnings, Arneson said the Ku Klux Klan typically burned crosses only twice in warning. He said his association couldn’t be responsible for what happened next. But the feared violent attack never materialized. Arneson would die of a heart attack on St. Patrick’s Day 1926 while walking home from a neighborhood party. The Francises remained in the Sargent house until William Francis was appointed U.S. minister to Liberia in 1927. He died there two years later after contracting yellow fever.
Nellie returned to St. Paul with his body, and the play opens at his funeral. She returned to Nashville and died 40 years later, in 1969. They are buried side by side in Greenwood Cemetery in Nashville.
Bill Green, a history professor at Augsburg University, said the issue of restrictive covenants, housing discrimination and mob violence is characteristic of that era, with several incidents reported over the decades in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“It was noteworthy that it happened to this couple,” he said. “They were both just phenomenal people.”
Despite Minnesota’s reputation of progressiveness, Green said, the state’s citizenry often operated in a parallel universe of racism and bigotry. For example, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed the anti-lynching bill — yet housing discrimination was commonplace.
“We were very much like the rest of the country in so many ways,” Green said. “We just had better press.”
He said he hopes the play can spark conversations about not only what happened but its influence on race relations and housing patterns today.
“It forces us to wonder, are we different from the past?” he said. “In a sense we are. We are able to pull away the veil.”